Best backpack for a college student?
July 11, 2013 6:29 AM   Subscribe

I need to get a good backpack for college. For the first time in my life, I will be walking (and perhaps biking) to get around. I need something that will keep my books and laptop dry. Bonus points for a backpack that I could comfortably wear on bicycle trips.

I'm looking for a good combination of price, durability, and versatility, but Consumer Reports doesn't have any advice. Is it important to visit a couple different stores and try on some backpacks? I would appreciate any general advice on being a smart pedestrian and cyclist.
posted by gray17 to Travel & Transportation around Athens, GA (15 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Try looking around local area bike shops for a deal on Chrome backpacks. A friend just got one on sale for under $100. Very rugged, great for cycling. More showy.

The 5.11 tactical backpack is very rugged, but might not be as cyclist friendly. You'll find this in typical survivalist/military surplus shops that sell other 5.11 tactical stuff. This would be espcially great if you planned on using it for backpacking/traveling. Less showy.
posted by oceanjesse at 6:39 AM on July 11, 2013

Best answer: I used to work in a sporting goods / outdoor store and you MUST go in person to try it on. It needs to be the right size for your torso & hips. You will want comfortable strap padding and wear it so that the weight rests on your hips. Be sure to weigh down the bag when you try it on (bring books and your laptop) and wear it for at least 1/2 hr in the store to be sure it's really comfortable.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 6:54 AM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Seconding Chrome bags. I've had one of their messenger bags for 8 years now, and it always keeps my laptop dry, even when riding in the rain.
posted by craven_morhead at 7:03 AM on July 11, 2013

Not sure if you have Vaude in the States, I know they sell the brand in Canada and the UK. I have had my Vaude backpack for three years now and it's still in really good condition and super comfy. I've used it to commute to work since I've had it and so far, it's been good in the rain (it comes with a bright orange cover that fits in its own little pocket tucked into the bottom of the pack). I've also used it on multi-day cycling excursions along with panniers, no problem.
posted by Ocellar at 7:10 AM on July 11, 2013

Response by poster: So let's say I find a good comfortable backpack in a local store, but it's not rain-proof. Can I make it rain-proof somehow?
posted by gray17 at 7:32 AM on July 11, 2013

For cycling, I love the Banjo Brothers backpacks. They are a great price and super waterproof.

Of course, if you're just tooling around on the bike, I think a non-cycling backpack can be fine, but I don't know of many that are truly waterproof.
posted by advicepig at 7:33 AM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Yes, you can buy a pack cover to keep the pack and it's contents dry in the rain. They are basically a huge, glorified shower cap, and they work great.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 7:35 AM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm a fan of the timbuk2 waterproof "swig" style backpack. Hands down, the best non-camping backpack I've ever owned, and it's in perfect shape and still waterproof after two years of daily use, including several miles of daily walking and quite a few long bike rides.

They're not cheap, but last-year's models are slightly cheaper.

(Also, think carefully before buying a camping backpack with waist straps. If you're not carrying tens of kg for tens of km every day, the extra weight and awkward bulkiness will only annoy you. Being able to slip you bag under a bus seat is worth a lot, and getting something that you can wear in a professional setting without looking like a crazy person may come in handy.)
posted by eotvos at 7:35 AM on July 11, 2013

When I go canoe camping, I use dry bags inside non waterproof backpacks. My current favorite is from SealLine. Keeps things perfectly dry, adds little weight, and I never really worry about it.
posted by advicepig at 7:38 AM on July 11, 2013

As for your update about waterproofing, I give you “How to wax canvas.”
posted by oceanjesse at 7:44 AM on July 11, 2013

I love my new backpack. It is from Tom Bihn and waterproof! The day after I received my bag, it rained so darn hard. I had on a rain coat and a sweatshirt over my clothes and I was soaked completely through. The contents of my backpack were completely dry. It is the only bag that doesn't hurt my bag after a day of trekking and carrying my laptop and lots of other things. Also, I purchased Neverwet recently. That product has made all sorts of things that are not waterproof, waterproof. I wouldn't do it to my phone like some people have tried, but I would certainly put it on my backpack if I needed it.
posted by Yellow at 7:55 AM on July 11, 2013

Best answer: I bike commute everyday in the Pacific Northwest, so waterproofing is a pretty significant concern for me; I've actually got two bags, and both are phenomenal, but they have their drawbacks. I switch between the two pretty regularly. I'm also really particular when it comes to backpacks...I've had a number of them.

If keeping things dry is the primary concern, I would suggest getting and Ortleib. I have the larger one, and that thing is a goddamn cavern. When I was in college, it routinely held a change of clothes, all my books, laptop, notebooks, etc. Basically everything I needed for a full day out of the house, and then off to work. I use this bag as luggage. It's incredibly waterproof, and unlike any canvas bag (I'm looking at YOU timbuk2, chrome and Bailey works!) they won't mildew. If you get soaked, you can dry them off in any bathroom, and's dry. The only drawback is that they don't have any internal organization other than that little snap-pouch that you can buy...and that thing is pretty limited. I would invest in little pockets and pouches for everything if you go this route. It's basically just a waterproof sack with a very comfortable back to it. Sometimes depending on how you pack it, this pack can get uncomfortable while biking, but that's only if you're lazy in packing it up.

If comfort is your primary concern, especially while biking, and you don't need it to be "throw in a lake" waterproof, I would totally check out Bailey Works Bags. This is more my everyday-all-the-time bag. I love this thing. It's super comfortable on a bike, and waterproof enough to work most days around here. It does however suffer from the mildew problem if it doesn't properly dry, like all canvas/courdoura bags. The vinyl lining keeps everything dry-ish, but again...don't throw it in a lake. This thing has pockets galore, AND a cavernous interior. If you buy one directly from them, get all the options. This thing has so many pockets and compartments that I have everything a diaper bag would have in it, in addition to my regular everyday carry stuff. It's fantastic. It's like wearing a swiss army knife on your back if you pack it right.

Both bags are a bit pricy, but they've lasted 7 and 5 years respectively; Which is something like 30 bucks a year for an amazing backpack. Pretty cheap, even if you only plan on having it through college.

I would NOT recommend a timbuk2 messenger style bag; they're woefully uncomfortable for long-wear-times. Their quality has also dropped quite a bit in recent years. I have an old waxed canvas one of theirs that is still fantastic, but I got a newer, larger one to replace it and it didn't last a year of hard use.

I love backpacks.
posted by furnace.heart at 8:04 AM on July 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

I carried my Tom Bihn backpack through rain and blizzards during my undergrad and masters. The backpack is still in fantastic shape and I beat the hell out of it. I can't recommend them enough.
posted by Silvertree at 8:43 AM on July 11, 2013

Also in the PNW here

The people recommending chrome bags are on the right track. Do NOT get one of the single strap "messenger" type ones.(furnace.heart nailed it above. They just get very uncomfortable after a few hours especially when loaded down) THe great ones are the pawn and orlov(i own one two sizes larger than the bigger one of those that they don't even make anymore. Trust me, you do not want a bigger one).

It's absolutely water proof unless you're actually throwing it in a lake(and i'd give my laptop good odds of surviving a minute or two even then), unbelievably durable, comfortable as hell and specifically designed for biking, and it looks pretty cool.

The ortlieb bags are kinda cool, but it's really irritating that they're just one big cavernous sack rather than multiple pockets. The chrome bags have a sort of waterproof "sleeve" area in the front behind that i can throw my laptop in(a 17in macbook pro fits even in the small ones!), the two front pockets, and the main compartment. They also have the cordura shell over the rubbery liner rather than that being the only line of defense.

I got mine in a trade for a single strap chrome bag, which i had gotten in a trade for another chrome bag. I've owned/used timbuk2 bags(which do suck now) and several other brands. They all have either inadequate padding, questionable construction, or other tiresome issues.

I think my bag is about 10 or 11 years old now and there aren't even the beginning signs of anything starting to wear out or look "broken in". All the padding and stitching is still strong. I've filled it up with close to 100lb of gear and used it to carry enough stuff for 3 people to crash in another town PLUS some small music gear and merch. It's also water proof enough that you can use it as a cooler, although you'll get a bit of condensation and maybe a tiny drip here and there...

I'd also add that i've never had a mildew problem with any of the bags. And i've used them as coolers, accidentally let food mold/rot in them, and other gross/awful things. I always just hose them out in the bath tub with hot water and prop them up on a towel hook in a position they'll be "open" and it dries and smells normal.
posted by emptythought at 2:25 PM on July 11, 2013

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